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Post-secondary funding to feel financial pinch

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It appears Manitoba's universities will be among those groups feeling the pinch when the province tables its budget April 16.

Sources have confirmed the NDP government will cut in half the increase in total funding to universities that was expected this year.

The schools had planned on a five per cent increase in base funding this year, the last of a three-year funding agreement. Sources confirmed the funding provided in the 2013-14 budget will now be 2.5 per cent.

Not a budget cut, per se. But less than the schools expected, and no doubt less than they would argue they need.

The decision to slow funding to universities is, one could expect, a tell on the upcoming budget. The province is in tough to erase its deficit, which increased over the course of the past fiscal year by $107 million. The total deficit, at last official count, stands at $576 million. This has pushed the deadline for eliminating the deficit back to 2017.

Last year, according to the summary budget statement, total spending was down 3.9 per cent from the previous year. However, because of the 2011 spring flood, the province suffered an additional $437 million in net costs. That dramatically increased the total spending line that year. Critics continue to argue that if you take over those flood costs, there is evidence the province is not doing enough to cut spending on programs directly funded or delivered by government.

Overall, the province froze or reduced spending in 10 government departments. It also found savings by reducing the number of health authorities to five from 11, and merging Manitoba Liquor and Manitoba Lotteries. It was all part of $128 million in spending cuts that, it was thought, would get the deficit under control and retired by 2014-15. We know by now that plan failed.

So, if the tough love for universities is any indication, there will be more than enough pain for numerous departments and funded agencies. Simply put, the province must show some significant progress on the deficit this fiscal year. To date, Premier Greg Selinger has resisted deep spending cuts in priority service areas but if economic growth and revenues do not bounce back, and there is no indication they will in this upcoming year, then he has to do something else.

That having been said, it's troubling to see post-secondary education among the list of departments being asked to do with less, even if it's just less than they were expecting. Universities are key cogs in the economy and integral components in a province's national profile and reputation. Even though almost no one disagrees with those statements, post-secondary education is being battered this budget season.

Alberta (-6.8 per cent) and Nova Scotia (-3 per cent) have outright cut funding to universities. Quebec last year clawed back $124 million in funding and cancelled a scheduled tuition increase. Three others provinces -- P.E.I., New Brunswick and British Columbia -- have frozen funding to universities this year; for B.C., this is the third year in a row of budget freezes. Post-secondary advocates are waiting with great trepidation for a budget in Ontario where, over the past two years, universities have been funded at well below the rate of inflation.

How and why post-secondary education has gotten the short end of the government funding stick is not entirely clear. Perhaps it is the fact that other departments, namely health care, justice and social/family service, are volume- or demand-driven and therefore more difficult to cut. Or, perhaps it is the knowledge that high school students will continue to flock to universities in search of a degree that leads to a good job regardless of government funding levels. In other words, demand for post-secondary education will not drop, even if the quality of that education is suffering.

For this upcoming year, Manitoba appears poised to be the best of a sorry lot of provinces when it comes to university funding. That is a dubious distinction and one that does not bode well for future generations.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2013 A5

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